Home ownership isn't what it used to be

The Quenneville family in front of the home they bought last year. The time and emotional toll of home ownership has them doubting the suburban dream home.

Frank mentioned buyer's remorse, and for the most part we've been talking about smaller purchases. But sometimes that remorse comes in much bigger packages, like a house. About two-thirds of American households live in homes they own. But only 13 percent tell pollsters that they've achieved the American Dream.

By Curt Nickisch

Andrea and Raymond Quenneville think they timed it about as well as they could, taking the plunge last year at what they considered a low point in the market. They bought a yellow house in Merrimack, N.H.

"Four bathrooms, two-car garage, and then upstairs, we have five bedrooms," Andrea said.

"We have a bathroom downstairs," one her children pointed out.

"For a family of six, it's really nice to have so much space," she said.

Three thousand square feet. Enough for Raymond to have a room stacked with guitars and a sound-mixing board --- he records music, at least when he has time. And upstairs, Andrea has her own sewing room. She crafts tote bags with flower and animal prints and sells them online. Although she admits, it's more of a hobby than a moneymaker.

"Maybe this is one reason why I have buyer's remorse," she said. "My fabric budget has drastically decreased."

When Andrea and Raymond first met, they discovered they shared a love of the outdoors. Even after they had children, they enjoyed hiking and camping. They named two of their kids after national parks: Bryce and Acadia, the one where they married.

So the house with a porch under tall pines looked good to them. They timed the purchase so they got the first-time home buyer tax credit. And they figured buying a teenage house would mean less maintenance. But Andrea says that tax credit ended up going straight into some big-ticket repairs.

"Unexpectedly, had to replace the roof," Andrea said. "And then day the roofers arrived, to start working on the roof, the water heater burst."

Andrea and Raymond always knew there'd be costs to owning. It's just different when you're actually writing the checks. To save money, they're trying to do more on their own, but that means more time. Take the leaky shower repair that Andrea says has put one bathroom out of commission.

"I think we started this project in July," she said.

They haven't been camping since they bought the house.

Now, their weekends are for raking and mowing. When it's not the yard, it's fix-it projects in the house. Raymond does miss the days when they were renting, when the weekends were theirs. He's a systems engineer and works long hours in Lexington, Mass. His commute is over an hour each way.

"The kids always want to play with me, and I come home from work and there's things that need to get done," Raymond said. "That, to me, is one of the biggest struggles with the home ownership, is having enough time to play with the kids."

But Raymond's trying to persuade Andrea that it will pay off eventually. He says those big mortgage payments are good, because it forces them to put money into the house, instead of another guitar or another bolt of fabric. But the tradeoffs work against them, too. For now, to manage the payment, Raymond is contributing less to his retirement plan, which means giving up some of the money his employer puts in as well.

The house debt --- owing more than $330,000 -- worries Andrea.

"I feel like with renting, we had more of a safety net, which is strange," she said. "Because everyone thinks you buy a home and it's stable and safe and you'll be there for a long time. And it's the cornerstone of being an adult, and it's seen as a sign of wealth. Now, in this economy, it doesn't seem that that's true."

The house has dropped in value since they moved in. Andrea Quenneville realizes this is the choice she and Raymond made. They're living with it. They're not looking to sell. But she wants to be a better mother, raise good kids, and she worries home ownership undermines that.

"It's overwhelming and it's a burden that weighs on me," she said. I'm sure it colors how I see other things, and it impacts how I parent, and how much patience I have, and it spreads through your life."

There are days Andrea is glad they bought the house. Other days, she wishes they were still renting.

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Wow, thats interesting Sam Sanchez. Question: did the bottom falling out of the market (and it's effect of your income dropping massively) play into the grounds for Roxie seeking a divorce from you just a few months later?

I owned a home with my ex-husband, until we divorced just a bit over a year ago. We, too, had bought into the "Dream": buy a house, have a family, etc. etc. etc. After a few years, though, the stress of being buried under a huge debt load, and the constant nickel and dime (more like $150-$500) fixes, nearly bankrupted us. Some dream, huh? I left the house with the ex when I left the dream behind, never in a million years expecting id be better off financially without it. But I am, and I'll not be buying into the fallacy of the "American Dream" again.

1) The original American Dream, was a multi-generational one. You worked hard, so your son (rarely a daughter) might get out of the fields and into an apprentanceship. Your grandchild, if you were lucky, would advance from there and your bloodline would then flee the social constraints of Europe, and live the American Dream.

Of course, the following generations born with a silver spoon in their mouth might piddle away the family fortune, but...Thomas Paine discussed that in the evils of inheiritance :)

2) buying too much house, in order to feel successful, results in merely trying to fill up that space. It helps the economy to buy all that stuff to fill up the space, then put more into the attic or basement--or both.

If it isn't something used for the holidays, and you can store it someplace where you won't be using it--the unfinished basement or attic--then you don't need it, except as an emotional security blanket.

Buying small makes more sense, but few understand, so the resale value isn't so great.

I just sold an older home and bought a lower maintenance condo. Even with the condo fees, I still think I will spend less money to maintain the condo in the long run. I will also get to spend more time doing what I enjoy, which is practicing and teaching yoga. I definitely don't see a house as an investment, just a zero interest rate savings account.

I heard this story twice over the weekend and became convinced that home ownership wasn't the problem. It was the home they chose to own. They bought too much house for them, and they bought a home too far away from the workplace. A smaller home, maybe a smaller yard, and a shorter commute would probably change their view of home ownership.

I would love for Marketplace to do the math for me. When you add interest, taxes, insurance, PLUS all of the maintenance costs, I've never been convinced that it's a financially sound investment. Is it? Yes, my house has appreciated, but look at all of that interest I paid. Yes, you get a tax break, but it's only the federal tax on the interest that you paid? Does it really help that much?

I guess you pay for the privacy and the fact that your landlord can't just kick you out. Other than that.. I'm still not convinced. It's very hard to save.

My two cents. Owning is not for everyone. The questions are always: what is your alternative to owning a place? Is it living for free somewhere? Is it renting? If it is renting, how much is the rent? What is your job situation? What it your LIFE situation? What is your LIFEsytle? All these need to be answered. I bought my home in 2001, we will sell next year, I figure we'll get about $80,000 from the sale to use towards our next home, assuming the market stays the same. Our next home will be the home we'll stay in for the rest of our lives, that's the plan anyway. We have two small children. I love my house. No landlord telling me what to do, what not to do. No one telling me my lease won't be renewed because the owner is selling it, thus having to move when I don't want to. Yes, I hate mowing my lawn, paying for a new furnace, etc. but I knew that was homeownership. The equity I have plus the tax breaks I've received from owning are just some of the benefits, but it's not for everyone. As to the article, was the roof an expense that was unexpected? Did they have a home inspection?

This does not surprise me. I use to originate mortgages in 2004 and 2005 in the Washington, DC area. Almost all my customers wanted more homes and were willing to get risky loans - because they did not have the income. I advised them on all the risk, but they still wanted the bigger house and/or bigger car through refinancing. No one could stopped them until they went broke or almost broke. Now they and the banks want us to bail them out. Why?

To Daphne B: If you know where you will be when you are finally not able to work any longer (the new definition of retirement), if you know that you will be able to have your house paid off before that time comes, and if you know that you will not be forced to move to find a job or for other economic reasons, then it is a wise move to buy a house. My parents are in that position, and I am happy that they will always have a home. However, many of us have to be on the move more frequently in order to stay employed, or we can choose to be underemployed in the town where our house is, but either way, home ownership can be a huge burden instead of a blessing.

I didn't realize how much a house would cost to maintain. I didn't factor that in to the monthly cost, so I just don't do much maintenance and as a result the house is deteriorating. I bought power tools to do flooring myself to save money, but failed to use hearing protection and now have permanent incurable tinnitus to go with my marginally installed wooden floor. DIY was so lauded all my life, but in fact it is better to get someone who knows how to do a job well to do it. It's all too much for me, and I dream of selling and escaping!


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